It is not known whether Athanasius of Alexandria was a nice man or not. He has always been honoured as a saint, one of the greatest of that band of bishops and theologians we call ‘the fathers of the Church’. But he was no shrinking violet. There are others of the Fathers who were no walkover either. The scheming Cyril of Alexandria, cranky Jerome and passionate Augustine come to mind. These were all what we would call ‘tough cookies’ and were not slow to get fully involved in the theological and political quarrels of their time.
Theology in those centuries was a highly politicized occupation. Emperors and kings were as involved as bishops and theologians in the work and decisions of Church Councils. Athanasius lived through a particularly turbulent time, born in 295 and dying in 373. As a deacon of the Church at Alexandria he attended the Council of Nicea in 325 and later became Archbishop of Alexandria, which was then one of the most important cities of the Empire.
Athanasius had to go into exile no less than five times. He had the misfortune to live through many changes of Emperor, each one supporting the opposite political group to the one before him. So Athanasius was in and out of his see like a yo-yo, on one occasion having to travel as far north as Trier and on another hiding out with the monks in the Eyptian desert.
Through exile, political tussles, confusion and danger, something kept Athanasius on a steady course. He was a rock in the midst of it all and is treasured by the Church ever since for having been so. Some instinct of faith guided him, as he held on with every ounce of energy to his faith in the divinity of the Son. This is the doctrine for which he fought: that the Son is fully and equally God, of the same substance or being as the Father.
The strongest alternative view at the time was that the Son was ‘in between’, neither God nor human, that he was less than God but more than human. Athanasius opposed this view with all his strength because he believed that it undermined the Christian faith fundamentally. His reasons were practical, drawn from the ordinary occupations and convictions of Christians.
In the first place he appealed to the Scriptures and argued that their obvious sense is the one he proposed, that the Son is God as the Father is God. This is what we read there, it is what we hear when the Scriptures are proclaimed and it is what we are taught when the Scriptures are preached.
Next he said ‘look at what we do in our liturgies’. When we come together to baptize, for example, we baptize people ‘in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’. Now what sense would it make to baptize people in that way if the Son were not God along with the Father and the Holy Spirit too?
Finally he argued from the fact of our salvation. What we need, he said, is a mediator who is truly human and truly God. If the Word did not become flesh, one of us, our brother, sharing our condition, then our humanity has not been healed and redeemed. ‘What the Word has not taken on has not been saved’, was how he put it. But it is also true that we are not saved if Jesus was not divine. How could we save ourselves? We are saved because the one who died for us is the only-begotten Son of the eternal Father. The fact that God, in his great love, chose to save us through one who became like us in all things but sin, simply strengthens our wonder at the greatness of divine love. ‘Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ’ is how Saint Paul puts this (1 Corinthians 15.57).
Athanasius may or may not have been easy to live with. What stands out is his firmness in faith, his dedication to truth and his determination to be the loving servant of the Word of God no matter what the personal cost to himself. When we are troubled by the conflicts, confusions and scandals of our own times it is good to recall people like Athanasius, tough cookies who kept their minds and hearts fixed on ‘the one thing needful’.
This reflection was first published in the newsletter of St Dominic's Parish, London NW5